Maddening, Infuriating, Frustrating Fun
Review by Kevin Steele
Larry DeMar, co-creator of the Williams arcade classics Defender, Stargate, and Robotron, once said that a game shouldn't be too easy: "Contrary to what a lot of people would believe, a game that you walk up to and play twenty minutes on immediately you're not gonna be very interested in. You need the new conquest, you need to go up there and have it going 'You're dog food' for you to want to come back and try and learn and beat it."
Space Tripper, by PomPom Games, is a game inspired by Defender, and it seems to take this quote to heart - it's a frustrating, die early, die often-type of game. It's also maddeningly addictive.
Modern 3D Old-Skool 2D Shooter
Like the other retro-themed shooter from PomPom Games, Mutant Storm, Space Tripper is a modern, 3D-accelerated update of a classic 2D arcade game. This time the game that provided the inspiration is Defender by Williams Electronics, and in many ways there isn't as clear-cut a gaming lineage linking Defender to Space Tripper - about all that has survived the re-interpretation is the side scrolling playfield, radar screen, and the need to "flip" your ship to change directions.
Even so, the game does evoke the memory of Defender while largely inventing its own unique style of game play. You face off against a number of different enemies in a horizontal-scrolling "arena," and the first law of arcade games is in effect: shoot anything that moves.
Enemies "spawn" during play, appearing all over the playfield as you race back and forth shooting. There are no humans to rescue, and the only power-ups that appear do just that - they increase the power of your two existing guns, a wide-spread gun (for masses of enemies), and more powerful straight-on gun (for taking down the tougher opponents.)
There are fourteen levels in the game, spread out across four "worlds," each with it's own theme and an end-of-world boss to destroy. Along the way there are a generous variety of enemies to battle. The arenas are very detailed, with ramps and lots of other 3D flourishes to enhance what is basically just a 2D playing area.
Get Control of Yourself!
First off, another "true confession" - I suck at Defender. Absolutely, totally suck. Something about the control scheme my hands never "grokked." I always end up reversing instead of shooting, or some other equally embarrassing control-related screw up. When the game was in the arcades I played now and then, but never long enough to get a good feel for how to play the game well. It was just too humiliating.
That said, I don't have the same complaint with Space Tripper - the controls take some adjusting to, but they're greatly simplified compared to Defender (there is no hyperspace, no thrust, and no smart bomb button, for example).
You have your standard directional buttons (up, down, left, and right) a fire button, a "switch weapon" button, and a reverse button. If even that is too confusing, there is an alternate control scheme that combines the fire button and direction change button into two separate "fire left" and "fire right" buttons. I found the alternate setup a lot more comfortable.
The game has a lot of configuration options, including resolutions from 320x240 (!) to 1024x768, an option to flip the playfield vertically instead of horizontally, and the ability to map the controls to the keys of your choosing (a must for play on a MAME cab!). It also supports joystick or gamepad control.
Starting Over (and Over, and Over, and Over.)
One of the things I noticed right away about Space Tripper was the difficulty - I died almost immediately after the game started. Then I died again, and again, and.well, you get the idea. There are three difficulty levels - easy, hard, and hardest (which you can only select after completing the game on "hard," I believe - trust me, I haven't gotten that far!)
From the very beginning, even with only a handful of enemies onscreen, I was having that "dog food" experience that Larry talked about. I was stuck on level one, and was quickly getting the feeling that I was doomed to remain there, trapped on the "nice and easy" level.
Then something happened. I started to "get it," and my scores improved. Slowly, but surely, I was getting the hang of things. I can appreciate a game that, even when it seems difficult, rewards you for hard work and practice. The game is hard but fair, but I definitely don't like the way things are handled when you die, however.
When you die, you're forced to restart the entire level from the beginning, which can be especially irritating when you're fighting a "boss" character (such as the amazingly detailed spider boss at the end of the first world) and suddenly you've got to fight through a few dozen smaller enemies again to face a fresh, rejuvenated boss all over again. This can quickly become infuriating when you're one shot away from killing the boss and you get hit.
The level restart can get tiresome, especially since the Space Tripper levels can take up to five minutes to complete. The same "level restart" is used in Mutant Storm, but it's hard to complain about in that game since the levels only take about 30-40 seconds to complete.
Another gripe is the way enemies spawn, sometimes appearing right in front of you as you jet across the playfield. The same thing happens in Defender, and I found it irritating in that game as well. Call me a Robotron disciple, but I like to have all my enemies onscreen (and attacking) at the same time. The pace of spawning sometimes feels leisurely, as well (if anything in an arcade shooter can be called leisurely, that is!)
So, if the level restart and the overall difficulty level are so frustrating to me, why do I find myself playing this game again and again? I...don't know. It's as if the 3D graphics, great sound, and genuine arcade game play have some sort of miracle ability to overcome the minor annoyances I've mentioned. Space Tripper is a great game for classic gaming aficionados, a genuine "blast-a-thon" that delivers reflex-straining rapid-fire arcade action. Trust me, your trigger finger will get tired. It's the most fun frustration I've had in a long time.